Connecting via Carrie Brownstein

I write constantly. Most of the time, it’s not an actual physical act. I’m writing in my head, addressing this invisible reader who is always with me. The words appear on mental pages, typed, read aloud in my voice. Often, I dream of words. Lying quietly in yoga, it’s these kernels of stories — individual sentences, clumps of paragraphs — that I have to still and push out of my consciousness.

I often struggle, however, to put fingers to actual keys. That’s not because I can’t think of anything to write about; on the contrary, a running script has galloped through my head every day.

What have I “written” about recently? Oh, the list is varied:

  • my experiences at a certified interpretive guide class
  • the wonders of high school band
  • how “teaching” is incorrectly named
  • time change and missing workouts
  • dichotomy of performance and isolation in writing
  • joyfulness of spending time with those who share a passion
  • what it must be like to wait 20 years to marry the person you love
  • books I’ve read
  • everything I love about orange vegetables
  • being a “human connoisseur”
  • advice to my child on taking a first adult job
  • ill effects of missing yoga for more than a week
  • letting go of disappointments, anger

A good many imaginary posts do become drafts. I currently have more than 10 drafts saved, silently waiting their time to be fleshed out, polished. That doesn’t include the folder of older ideas marked for the less immediate future. I do not want for topics or suffer from a dearth of writing passion.

There’s so much to say, to talk about, to share, to explore.

Which makes it odd that I’ve produced so little this last week. A futile exercise has been going on: I’m a captive in a cell, scrawling minute words on an unwinding scroll of precious toilet paper, hoping that somewhere, someday, someone will work her way through my desperately unrolling narrative, and not merely as a means to personal hygiene. But until that day, the words are trapped with me.

My mental scribblings flood into an increasingly narrowing funnel until everything squeezes to a halt. Stuck.

All those fragments of thought get crammed, shoulder to shoulder, topic upon topic, in a senseless mass, like a shuffling zombie herd that’s marched itself straight into a corrugated metal barrier with no conceivable exit (yeah, I’m getting caught up on my Walking Dead episodes during my writer’s block). Nothing gets through.

When You Can’t Write, Read

Cover of Carrie Brownstein's new bookI’m currently reading Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl, and she has me thinking about connection. Some friends and I went the other night to see her here in Austin; Brownstein read from her book and then answered questions from interviewer Liz Lambert and a variety of audience members.

I found Brownstein via Portlandia, thanks to my daughters who insisted I watch “Put a Bird On It.” Oh. My. God. I love her nimble wit and shape-shifter ability to become something other than herself. And yet at the reading, I felt as though I’d known Brownstein for who she was all along. Her book furthers that connection.

How do you foster that? How do you know that the words or music sent out into the universe matter? What does it take to be recognized? What does it take to feel heard? Would Brownstein put out the incredible material she does if there were never a room full of adoring fans? I suspect she would…or being the relentlessly restless performer she is, the format would change.

Maybe success lies in continually casting out threads of communication, the belief that simply doing (and doing well) eventually results in capturing an audience and creating that desired touch.

At the reading, Brownstein talked about how she mailed fan letters to actors as a kid. She wrote in Hunger:

“…A response, any response, implied that I existed, that I was not a weirdo, that I’d be okay. I could have gone to a school counselor or even talked to my parents, but I needed someone on TV or in the movies to reach out to me, not because they were famous but because they were so far away, it was like being seen from outer space. Suddenly I didn’t feel small; I was bigger than the house I was living in, larger than my town. Thanks to them, I somehow belonged to the world.” 

Later, once she’d discovered she wanted to be a musician, Brownstein and her friend Jana went to people’s homes to audition potential bandmates. Every try-out, she wrote, was “American Idol in miniature, dreamers meeting up with other dreamers, pinning our hopes on the least likely, yet always undeterred.” The rest of her description is sweetly supportive, perhaps illustrating why she connects so well with her audiences:

“Even then, I could still appreciate the moment of simply making sounds with a group of people. There is another place you go to in those instances, and it feels vast, refreshing, like you’re creating your own air to breathe. And even though it’s never going to happen again and there’s a palpable sense of mediocrity, there’s still a connection that you wouldn’t have otherwise, to the sound, to the people. I think for those reasons I’ve always been able to appreciate (but be simultaneously heart-broken by) bar bands and karaoke —  you witness the playing or the singing and you know that just being up there, engaged in a momentary artifice, a heightening of self, is sometimes enough to get by, to feel less worn down by, less withered by life. Sometimes it’s everything.”

Confession time: I don’t know that I ever listened to Sleater-Kinney. So unlike the young women sitting all around me at the reading, I wasn’t coming from that ’90s fan base. It was interesting to learn about  Brownstein’s musical journey and her creative process with the band. Who heads off to Australia to create and record music at 19? “It was an extreme way to start, ” Brownstein wrote. “I later learned how hard it can become to unsettle yourself, to trip yourself up, and I think that’s a good place to write from. It’s important to undermine yourself and create a level of difficulty so the work doesn’t come too easily….The stakes should always be high.”

Stakes can be high in a variety of ways. And for Brownstein, that voyage wasn’t simply musical or only about crossing continents. It involved personal connection separate from the artist’s intentions.

“There is the identity you have in a band or as an artist when you exist for no one other than yourself, or for your co-conspirators, your co-collaborators. When you own the sounds and when who you are is whoever you want to be. There are no definitions as prescribed by outsiders, strangers; you feel capricious, full of contradictions, and areas of yourself feel frayed or blurred. Other times you feel resolute or whole,” Brownstein explained. “But it’s all a part of you, it doesn’t feel fractured, just mutable. But once your sound exits that room, it is no longer just yours — it belongs to everyone who hears it. And who you are is at the mercy of the audience’s opinions and imagination.”

It takes a lot of bravery to fully step aside and release a song, a novel, a piece of work out into the world and let people take it where they will and join in as they may. It’s the ultimate ceding of control, allowing vulnerability, completing the process. At some point, every creative person has to jump off the artistic cliff.

You can’t live in your head, writing for invisible readers who don’t exist outside an author’s imagination. That kind of internal relationship denies connection.

At the end of  Hunger, Brownstein explained that Sleater-Kinney had given her the “steady bones” she needed to fully unleash her creativity, to “embrace the unnamed and the in-between.” Music simultaneously allowed individualism and cohesion. It’s why she returned to the band and performing in 2015:

“I was in my body, joyous and unafraid. I was home.”

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Published by Leah Nyfeler

I'm a writer, editor, runner, and adventurer who is always looking for the next new story, exciting adventure, and good meal/book/movie. My focus is on helping people find their best, healthiest self through sharing what I know and how I've come to learn it. In addition to my blog "Enjoying the Journey: Observations on the Fit Life" at, my articles have appeared in a variety of print and online magazines. You can hear me as part of the 2015 Austin cast of Listen To Your Mother.

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